Sunday, October 11, 2009

Le Mot Juste / The Right Word

Earlier this week, Brenna Lyons discussed lamentable editing in her brennalyonsden blog.

Sometimes, repetition of a word is vital to the elegance of a sentence and the development of a thought. Repetition is a crucial component of oratory, whether it is a pattern of "Like.... like.... unlike" (Brenna's example) or "a gentleman of extraordinarily propriety.... a gentleman of extraordinary impropriety" which I misquoted from a Georgette Heyer novel.

When a misguided copy-editor gets hold of your carefully crafted words after you've signed off on the edits and makes a change behind your back, there is nothing you can do about it. Thus, in my e-book Mating Net "her Concubinage class" became "her concubine class", and my made-up, alien, scholastic discipline became a nonsense (at least, in my opinion).

If you are writing alien romance, or even a romance set in the future, you will probably need an occasional made-up word. And, if your editor substitutes a modern day synonym, I encourage you to be ready to justify and defend your original word or wording. You might win it back.

I've worked with four editors, and they have all been reasonable when I've presented a convincing case for --for example-- the arrogant alien Tarrant-Arragon to say "unsense" although we would exclaim "nonsense!" As demonstrated with Concubinage, not every won battle remains won.

The right word is worth fighting for.

But... how do you know what is the right phrase, or sentence? Is it a bit of a toss up for you, before you decide? Or does the right expression leap fully formed and perfect from your head, like Athena out of Zeus?

"Devil!" She gasped. "What do you want?"

Forget whether it should be "She" or "she", and whether it is possible to say "Devil" while gasping, and whether a spirited heroine would gasp after recognizing a devil.

What about "What do you want?"?

(Punctuating that quoted question within a question is another can of worms, I think!)

As Jacqueline Lichtenberg pointed out in a recent blog, dialogue in fiction is not real life dialogue.

Assuming that the Devil "wants" the heroine, "what do you want?" might be the best question. If your editor substituted "What are you doing here?" (unlikely... more wordy) or "Why are you here?" would you care? Would you fight for it?

Does "Why?" always trump "What?" in character-driven Romance?

Introducing "here" into the question subtly changes it. Now, the heroine's focus is on their location. Also the Devil cannot respond as succinctly. He can't answer, "Sex" or "You."

Even the most laconic of devils would have to turn the "" question back, and say, "I've come for you," or "Abducting you." Moreover, if he clearly states his intentions, that's like seeing Jaws before the first swimmer is eaten.

"How did you get here?" isn't dramatic enough to consider, even if he did just emerge from a hole in her bathroom floor, unless it's a story about logistics, and ductwork and plumbing... a futuristic Mission Impossible. It isn't.

On the other hand, "What do you want?" is a bit rude... abrupt, familiar. That might be fine if the heroine has met this Devil before. However, "What do you want?" could be said in at least three different ways, depending where the heroine puts the emphasis.

Do we explain this? Do we use italics?

Maybe I should look for a better greeting. "What are you going to do to me?" I think not. A devil might be tempted to answer with concise, shocking vulgarity. I don't believe that such crudity should appear in the second sentence on the first page of a romance novel.

It's not the best hook. It's certainly not a "stopper". For the time being, my Prologue has to start somewhere. I can edit later. Maybe, before the heroine speaks, she glimpses fingers thrusting up through her carpeted floor. Or through a grating in the floor. Or both.

This was erroneously posted to my Space Snark blog. Sorry for the repetition to anyone who follows both blogs!

Rowena Cherry

By the way, in a previous post, I discussed "stoppers".

Some examples of stopper:

“I don’t know how other guys feel about their wives leaving them but I helped mine pack.”

“I’ve been sleeping with your husband for the last two years."

“When the phone rang, Parker was in the garage, killing a man.”

If that's the gold standard, dross might be this year's Bulwer Lytton winners


  1. Gee, I thought this was only a critique partner level problem. I once had a critter say I couldn't use the word 'Impexi-glass' because she'd Googled it and it doesn't exist. I'd explicitly stated that the story was Science Fiction set two hundred years into the future.

    But, that's nothing compared to the person who thought I made up the logistics of the Battle of Britain. She said I'd need to revise it all because it was too unbelievable. The thing is I'd spent months researching it and it was all completely true. It's just what you Brits did was so extrordinary almost seventy years ago that people today have a hard time believing you really did it.

    I was too flabberghasted to respond at all.

  2. KimberAn

    Marion Zimmer Bradley had that happen with a submission of a true story to a TRUE CONFESSIONS magazine -- it was really a TRUE story, but they rejected it as implausible.

    "Plausibility" is a genre-audience kind of thing. That's why I keep talking about aiming your work AT a particular readership, represented by a particular editor.

    You have to know what your reader knows, believes, feels, and wishes were true but knows is not true, in order to get them to suspend disbelief.

    And within the structure of the story, you need to encode your ARGUMENT supporting your case, convince the reader that what they think is true is in fact not true (at least for 5 minutes).

    If you argue FOR something the reader believes already, they get bored.

    If you argue AGAINST what the reader knows is true, they get bored.

    The "argue" technique used to be taught in grammar school under the subject heading rhetoric, but today that word carries a negative semantic loading not related to the actual original meaning of the word.

    But this "plausibility" problem is one of the roots-of-all-evil behind Genre that I didn't get to discuss in my overly short post. *sigh*

    It is however one of many reasons that I recommend all writers study the history of philosophy and apply it to understanding our current world.

    People are subconsciously conditioned to the Hellenistic philosophy of reality, and if you violate that philosophy's main ideas, you do have to argue your case using the techniques of rhetoric transformed into symbolism.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  3. Oh, and just remember "reality" is not at all "plausible" which is why I warn you off of doing too much "research" and then writing with what you've learned too soon.

    You do need to write "what you know" but you don't know something you've researched until 5 or 10 years have passed while you digest and integrate that knowledge.

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg